Steven Turnipseed was the first African American graduate of MEDEX Northwest, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. He enrolled in the first class of students attending the program founded by Dr. Richard Smith in 1969. Like all early MEDEX students, he came from a military medical background. Serving in the Special Forces Medical Counterinsurgency Program, he was recognized for his special achievement in Thailand: “in a remote section of this country under minimal supervision, repeatedly demonstrating his outstanding ability to work with a strange people in a foreign environment. His intense professionalism and military bearing set him apart from his peers. SP6 Turnipseed’s outstanding performance of duty is in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflects great credit upon himself, this command and the US Army. (Harold R. Aaron, Colonel, Infantry, Commanding Officer, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces).
Turnipseed brought this same “outstanding performance of duty” and intensity to the new Physician Assistant (PA) profession. Serving as a role model, he was seen as a symbol of the MEDEX Program as he became one of the first PA to be employed by Group Health Cooperative, Seattle’s innovative and consumer-directed HMO. Group Health leaders quickly identified his leadership abilities and he went on to serve as a clinic and hospital administrator.
As a pioneering PA leader he was a strong advocate for uniting PAs under one organizational umbrella and was a founding member of the Board of Directors for the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). He was appointed by the AAPA to serve on the National Board of Medical Examiners’ (NBME) test writing committee responsible for developing the first PA national certifying exam administered in 1973.
Turnipseed also served as one of the AAPA’s first representatives to the Joint Review Committee for Accreditation of Physician Assistant Education (JRC-PA) which at that time was being overseen by the American Medical Association (AMA). He joined Joyce Nichols, John Davis, Earl Echard and other notable pioneering PAs in forming the AAPA’s Minority Affairs Committee in the early 1970’s. He is a founding member of the African American Caucus of the AAPA.
In addition to national service to the PA profession, he believed in working locally to foster the concept and was a founding member of the Washington State Academy of Physician Assistants serving as its president in 1976. He was active in building relationships with the Washington State Medical Association and worked as a member of their reimbursement committee to develop policies for payment of PA services.
Turning his attention to PA education, Turnipseed worked to establish the PA program at the Charles R. Drew University in Los Angeles. He served as a consultant for PA program development at the University of Alabama, the University of North Dakota, the University of Utah, Howard University and Meharry Medical School. He later served on the faculty of the Stonybrook University PA Program, Stony Brook, N.Y. where he was one of the first PA educators to receive the rank of assistant professor. In 1985 he earned the masters of public health degree from the University of Washington.
Since 1985 Turnipseed has practiced in Southern California. He joined the California Academy of Physician Assistants and served as an active member of the Political Action Caucus. In 1986 he was inducted into the PA Hall of Fame as one of the twenty “founding PAs” of the profession. He was the recipient of multiple alumni awards from the University of Washington. In 2007 Group Health Permanente recognized his outstanding contribution to Group Health and honored him by naming a special award for outstanding non-physician providers after him. Steve Turnipseed continued to work in primary care and provide leadership for the Centro Medico Urgente Medico Urgent in North Hollywood California until his death in 2022.
Acknowledgements: This biography of Steven Turnipseed was written by Ruth Ballweg and Gino Gianola and submitted to the Society on November 28, 2007. It was updated in June 2022. The banner photograph is courtesy of the PA History Society. Steven Turnipseed is speaking at the 1975 AAPA conference. The second photo is courtesy of MEDEX Northwest PA Program, University of Washington.